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Two years ago, the world talked of an “African Renaissance.” After decades of failure and progressive impoverishment, Africans again had reason to welcome the future. Democracy was ascendant, market-oriented reforms were in place and political and economic stability held out hopes for growth and prosperity for the first time in years. In two short years, though, the promise has evaporated. Africa is once again in turmoil and there is little cause for optimism.

Last year, a National Intelligence Estimate by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Africa faces a darker future than at any time in the past century. The report cataloged the many ills the continent faces: conflict, corruption, crumbling political systems, deteriorating economies, decaying infrastructure, disease, illiteracy and more.

The report could identify only eight of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries that had multiparty political systems, and each of those eight had political problems of its own, such as weak leadership and endemic corruption. Nearly half the nations in the region are engaged in military conflicts, either internally or with neighbors. Reports of genocide and other forms of savagery have become all too common.

Africa is the world’s poorest region, although it is the richest in natural resources. The combined economic output of sub-Saharan Africa is less than the gross national product of Belgium. Poverty has led to a vicious downward spiral, depriving countries of resources needed for infrastructure for the future, such as education, health care and clean water. With half of the continent’s inhabitants under the age of 15, the lack of education is especially worrisome.

If that were not enough, there is the AIDS crisis. It is estimated that one-quarter of Africa’s 700 million people will have died of AIDS within a decade. The epidemic will leave 35 million orphans. AIDS and other infectious diseases such as cholera and malaria have slashed Africans’ average life expectancy to 48 years; in Japan, the comparable figure is around 80 years.

That is the backdrop to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit this week to sub-Saharan Africa, the first ever visit to the region by a Japanese prime minister. During his stay in South Africa, Mr. Mori acknowledged the magnitude of the problems Africa faces and noted that “all the problems confronting Africa — poverty, conflicts, refugees, infectious diseases, water resources, environmental destruction, etc. — are problems that threaten human existence itself.”

To help remedy that situation, he announced plans to hold a third Tokyo International Conference on African Development, to discuss strategies and develop links between Southern Hemisphere nations. Japan has provided 90 billion yen yen in grant aid to Africa since 1998 for education, health care and water supplies and will offer an additional $3 billion to help fight infectious diseases over the next five years.

In Kenya, his second stop on the three-country tour, Mr. Mori promised to continue assistance to that nation and to support efforts to contain and prevent regional conflicts. In some ways, Kenya is Africa in microcosm. The country is the largest African recipient of Japanese aid, having received $58.35 million in 1999, but that is a significant decline from the $198.4 million given in 1995. That shift matches declining international interest in Africa, but it also reflects concern about the corruption that is rampant in Kenya. President Daniel arap Moi has been accused of looting his nation and aid funds have to be closely watched, posing serious questions about interference in sovereign affairs.

The biggest problem in dealing with Africa is reconciling its grim outlook with our own lives. Quite simply, Africa is a long way from our daily concerns. It was notable during the U.S. presidential campaign that the only region candidate George W. Bush did not define as relevant to the U.S. national interest was Africa.

The challenges are overwhelming, and there is an irresistible inclination to wash our hands of the mess and focus on other concerns closer to home. That temptation must be avoided. Mr. Mori is right. The problems the continent faces will eventually be our own, even if they are magnified and distorted in ways that make them virtually unrecognizable now. Some will dismiss Japan’s newfound concern as the product of tactical calculations — the desire to shore up support for the nation’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. That certainly enters into the calculus. But no matter what the motivation, Africa really does need help.

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